Welcome to episode three of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
Along with special guest Sister Trai Nghiem, from the Plum Village community, the hosts further discuss the differences between mindfulness and concentration; how to deal with strong emotions; ways to awaken the seeds of awareness and mindfulness; being present to ourselves; asking for forgiveness.
All three share insights about changes mindfulness has brought to their personal lives: “the fruit of the practice”.
Brother Phap Huu explains what it means to dwell in the present moment; shares observations about Thich Nhat Hanh’s daily mindfulness practice and his “superpower”; addresses the different styles of walking meditation and how to make the most of nature’s energy; and considers the importance of resting in today’s society.
Both monastics go on to share about the weekly ‘lazy day’ in a busy monastery, and why this may just be the most advanced practice day.
Jo contributes memories of Thich Nhat Hanh explaining the difference between practicing concentration and practicing mindfulness; ways to heal past wounds by being in the present moment; and methods for getting instant understanding when we are good observers of ourselves.
Sister Trai Nghiem shares about her spiritual journey to becoming a nun, and about life in the nunnery before and during the pandemic; being a musician both inside and outside of the monastery; combining playing violin with mindfulness; and how she let go of professional goals for perfection, instead just enjoying the energy of music created by the monastic community.
Finally, the sister ends the episode with a guided meditation.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Plum Village Community
Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path
Books by Thich Nhat Hanh
“Mindfulness is the capacity to also see the beauty of life.”
“When we observe ourselves as though we’re an outsider looking in, then we can develop instant understandings.”
“To develop the seed of mindfulness, we need a few formal practices that we can develop in our daily life; that way, we can always come back to them when strong emotions come up. We want to invite mindfulness to be present to take care of these strong emotions.”
“Mindfulness is the energy of cultivating awareness in our daily life.”
“Only when we’re truly ourselves can we go into the past and heal things, because we’re bringing that awareness of who we truly are. It’s about lifting the veil and being present to ourselves.”
“If you want to take care of the future, learn to handle the present moment.”
“Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would define love as understanding, because if you want to have compassion and love, you have to have understanding. And to have understanding, you need attention and time and focus.”
“We like to invite people to connect to their breath, letting that breath become a bridge. As they become aware of the breath, suddenly they bring their attention and mind to their body.”
“There are so many people trying to change the world who are burning out, who don’t really realize that you can only change the world if you change yourself.”
“Practicing mindfulness is not just practicing when we suffer. This is really important. Our teacher would encourage us to invest in our practice right now, when we’re happy, because when the storm arises, you don’t go look for a refuge. At that moment, you are the refuge.”
“There’s no such thing as a thought or an action that is neutral. Everything has an impact. That means that every time we open our mouths, every time we have a thought, it’s either going to create something of beauty or it’s going to create hardship.”
“It’s interesting to see how, when we feel spacious inside, physical space outside doesn’t really matter. We can be anywhere and feel spacious and happy.”
“To create change in our world, we have to come back to ourselves. And when we come back to ourselves – wow, we can really change the world.”
Welcome back to the latest episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino
and I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today in this episode, we’re going to be talking about Zen and the art of mindful living. Most of us live incredibly busy lives and we’re often caught up in all our busyness. But actually, if we take account of every moment we can come back to ourselves, we can find the joy.
And in today’s episode, we shall also have a guest, Sister Trai Nghiem, from the nuns community in Plum Village.
The way out is in.
Brother Phap Huu, do you want to just say hello to everyone?
Hello everyone to all of our friends who have been following us from the beginning. And hello to all of our new friends that are joining us today for the first podcast… For their first podcast.
Yes. So we are here to talk today about mindfulness. And the thing about mindfulness is to many people, it’s very new. I mean, this has come into the sort of mainstream of Western society. And a lot of people are talking about it and teaching it. But, of course, mindfulness comes from the time of the Buddha and in the Plum Village tradition and master Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness is actually one of the key practices that helps us to live a better life. So Brother Phap Huu, do you want to just give us a sense? What is mindfulness?
Simply, mindfulness is the energy that allows us to be in touch with the present moment. And to come in touch with the energy of mindfulness we do need to have a practice and a practice here it can be called a meditation or an exercise. And what we like to focus on as a basic practice is the breath. So most of the time our mind is elsewhere and our body is here, but we are thinking in 10000 directions and for us to really live, the Buddha teaches us that we have to be able to touch the present moment. And so, to be in the present moment, we have to allow ourselves, allow our mind and body to come together for it, to unite. It sounds much easier than done. So what we like to invite people to do is to connect to their breath, let the breath become a bridge, and as they become aware of the breath, suddenly what is happening is that they’re bringing their attention, their mind to their body. And at that moment, we can start to see that we are becoming more aware of what is happening inside of us and around us. So mindfulness is an energy of awareness. And to cultivate mindfulness, we also have to develop the following energy that goes along with mindfulness, which is concentration. And I think most of us are in that state where we are mindful of an instant, but then we forget right away. For example, let’s say, we’re all enjoying the sunset. The sunset is a beauty of the environment, of planet Earth, of what we can witness. Let’s say in that split second, we recognize the sun is setting and it is beautiful. But if we don’t have any concentration, we don’t know how to dwell in that moment. Our mind will go into autopilot and we will start thinking about the past or the future or be carried away by our emotions, our thoughts. And then once again, we lose that moment. So mindfulness is the energy of cultivating awareness in our daily life.
So one of the things about concentration… I once interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh and I was asking him about, because a lot of businesses and even the military are using mindfulness, but not to develop their sort of sense of compassion or love, but to be more focused and to earn more money, or with the military to be better at shooting people dead. And I asked him about other people using mindfulness in that way. And he asked me a rhetorical question. He said, Is a thief picking a lock, practicing mindfulness? And he said, no, they’re practicing concentration. Concentration on its own is not enough. He says that it’s about concentration that then leads to this openness of more compassion, more understanding. So can you just give us a sense of how we flow from concentration into more compassion, more awareness, more love?
Right. Mindfulness has to be right mindfulness. And so mindfulness is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness is one of them. And then it leads to concentration, which gives us more focus, more stability. And I think this is something that is quite crucial of today’s society because we’re so fast-paced. And for us to actually learn to be still is such an art. And to have compassion, to have love, there’s a very key ingredient which is understanding. A lot of the time our teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh he would define love as understanding, because if you want to have compassion and to have love, you have to have understanding and to have understanding, you need to have attention and time and focus in order to understand. And so, understanding can give rise that could give birth to compassion and love. And so if we are mindful of someone we love, we look at him or her deeply. We see his beauty, her beauty. But at the same time, we can also see his or her weaknesses or his or her suffering. But when you can see his or her suffering, actually what is born at that moment is compassion, because we as an individual, we also have suffering. So when we can identify somebody else’s suffering, we can see them as just us.
And also because often things spark our emotions, don’t they? It’s like we’re going on… something happens to us and suddenly it’s like an earthquake tremor and all the fault lines we have inside of us sort of burst open and the all these strong emotions come up. So does mindfulness help us actually deal with those strong emotions when they come up? And how do we work with them?
Mindfulness allows us to see our emotions and to recognize it when it is happening. And first of all, we have to develop this awareness, this… we call it in the Buddhist language, we say we all have a seed of mindfulness, a seed of awareness, and at the same time we have other seeds, such as frustration, anger, anxiety, fear, violence. And most of the time, especially when it’s on the level of an emotion or a feeling, we allow the emotion and the feeling to carry us away through our action of what we say, what we do, or even the way we look at someone. And most of the time we’re doing it without knowing that we are doing it. So mindfulness tells us, hey, you are angry right now, know that you are angry and suddenly if you know you are angry, then you have a question you have to ask yourself at this moment. I know I’m angry. What should I do? Should I retaliate, should I do something to punish him or her? And maybe most of us will have that tendency because it triggers us, but if we have learned about the teachings of mindfulness, concentration and insight, which I spoke about, which gives rise to understanding, compassion, then suddenly we want to become more of a compassionate person. Then with mindfulness, we can say, no, I will not retaliate. I want to take care of my anger. So one of our mindfulness trainings that we have as a practitioner in Plum Village when we are angry, we don’t do or say anything. We have to come back and take care of that seed of anger. And what our teacher would encourage us is to practice walking meditation. So to develop the seed of mindfulness, we have to have a few formal practice that we can develop in our daily life so that we can always come back to when we have these strong emotions come up. And we want to invite mindfulness to be present to take care of these strong emotions.
And in a sense, what this is all about is about getting to know ourselves, isn’t it? So… So one of the things for me is… which I learned through sort of Western psychology, but it’s very simplistic and a good observer of yourself, because when we observe ourself as though we’re an outsider looking at ourselves in, then we can develop instant understandings. It’s like the wise person watching you that you’re about to set off. So I had something today, brother, where I got very frustrated because I’m dealing with a lot of bureaucracy and France and issues around our house. And today I just thought, oh my God, I’m coming to do a podcast on mindfulness and I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed. This is not the energy I want to bring. But actually the most important thing is, as you say, is to say actually right now I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m feeling sort of frustrated and this is what I’m feeling. And start working with those emotions rather than being controlled in them. Because I think what happens is people often get controlled by their emotions, don’t they? And then the ultimate way that so often happens when people commit suicide is like the feeling is so strong in that moment, though. The pain is so strong that it feels like it’s impossible to continue. Can mindfulness help in those sort of extreme situations?
Mindfulness is the capacity to also see the beauty of life. And when we practice being in the present moment, we’re also training ourselves to recognize the beauty that is inside of us and all around us. And this is very important. So if we have the eye of meditation, the eye of mindfulness, and we can see that even though I have seeds of anger, of strong emotions, but at the same time in me are also all these wonderful seeds such as love, compassion, joy, freedom, hope. And so our practice is also to connect to those seeds inside of us. And mindfulness is also to remind ourselves that we are love. We are compassion. We are also nondiscrimination. So practicing mindfulness is not just to practice when we suffer. This is really important. A lot of the time our teacher would encourage us right now when you are happy to invest in your practice, because when that moment come, when the storm arises, you don’t go look for a refuge. That moment you are the refuge.
And could you talk a bit about the present moment, if you keep referring to the present moment and it’s taken me a long time to recognize what it means to dwell in the present moment, because, you know, even when I wake up, like in the mornings, I’m thinking about the past. I sort of lie in bed and I think, oh, my God, I should have done this and why didn’t I do that? And it goes all the way back to my childhood. Sometimes I… God, if I had only done that, then my life would be this now or my children would be that. And then I’m also thinking about what I need to do in the future. And so the present moment feels really, really squeezed. And for, I would imagine, many people listening to this podcast, you know, busy, complex, trying to manage kids, trying to manage work and kids trying to manage work, kids and a partner trying to manage kids and a partner and a house, et cetera, et cetera. You know, isn’t it a bit much to ask people to sort of stop?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. In our training, we are taught to be aware of the three times, which is the past, the present and the future. And we can never control these three times. Time is… It’s almost like… It’s a notion, because we give second and minute to identify time. Right? But at the same time, if you are a free person and you are not caught in the past or the future, you’re living in the moment. But our tendency is that sometimes we identify with experiences and we can only see ourselves of a past experience, or we are in a state where we’re always… We’re trained to always project ourselves to the future. And therefore we’re always living in a state of running after something, whether it is for our own accomplishment or for our community, our family, our loved ones. So when we reflect on the present moment, we may like to ask ourselves, am I really just an instrument to run after something either it is the past or the present or the future? Or can I actually take care of myself in the present moment? Buddhism doesn’t say only live in the present moment because that’s only where life is available, because actually the past is also a history book for us to gain experience from. But if we ask what is the future made of? It is made of the here and the now. So one of the most challenging challenge that our teacher gave us is if you want to take care of the future, learn to handle the present moment.
So that’s a wonderful example, brother. And it reminds me that one of the… I think the first really deep insights in my life was… I was living in New York and I was writing for a newspaper called The Daily Telegraph. And I went to New Orleans to do a weekend workshop with a very well-known psychologist, I suppose, called John Bradshaw. And he took us on this journey, this visualization going back to heal our child, our childhood wounds. He was… that was a lot of what his work was based on. And what I realized through that visualization is… In the present moment, I could travel back in time to meet myself as a child, as who I am now, and help that child who at that time where… I found my child was an eight year old crying in his bedroom at home. And I was able to reach back in time from the present moment and be there for him. And through that process, I actually got a lot of healing. By healing the past in the present moment, I changed who I am now because actually I was healing an old wound. And by healing the old wound I was very, by its nature, changing my future. So as I got this real insight of sort of almost this visual… visualization of standing up and the… my trunk, my body being, in a sense, the present moment. And from that strength and foundation, I could reach one arm out to my left to reach into the past and heal that. And put my right hand out outstretched to represent the future. And that by being in the present moment, I could heal the past and by its nature, transform the future.
Wow, that’s a beautiful sharing, Jo. Thank you. And I’ve also had some tough moments as a child growing up and one of it was being bullied. And I remember when I first came into the community, into the monastery, suddenly I am not with my family, with my friends. And I had to learn to make new friends. And most of the monks were of the age of my teachers, like maybe in the 30s, 40s, 50s. And then I started to realize I had a natural habit of fear towards certain brothers, monks in the community, maybe because they hold a certain authority just around them. And I carried this for a few years as a monk. And I always ask myself why whenever I’m around them, I would turtle, I would go into a shell? And I started to realize, I started to recognize as I meditate on this state of being, I started to realize, oh, it comes from my past. When I was young, I had a particular cousin who was always bullying me. I didn’t know why he bullied me because I, I was a very kind kid, I would think. And I don’t believe that I’ve done anything to be punished like this. And through this meditation, I started to look at my cousin, who was a refugee, who went through a time of life and death, whether he would survive or not. And then he had to go through refugee camp, which I heard stories from my father, which it wasn’t pleasant. And so I could start to see that he had so much suffering and so much frustration, and especially coming to a new country like Canada, where he had to learn English, he had to learn a new culture. And I’m sure there was so many frustrations in him that he didn’t know where to where to release it. And so I became a victim of that. And suddenly I touched that past in that present moment, just like how you touched your eight year old child. And I felt this liberation because suddenly I was able to see the root of that habit of turtling around people who I projected this fear upon them. And suddenly I had to rechannel myself and I would remind myself: Phap Huu, you know, my name, Phap Huu, the people you’re around there may be one of the most kindest people in the world. Stop copy and pasting this image of your cousin on these people. And the more I did that, the more I allowed myself to be a new person, to have new view in this present moment.
Yeah. So in a sense, being in the present moment is healing ourselves.
Because actually we’re no longer a victim of the past or fearful of the future. We are… We can be whole. We can be ourselves in this moment.
And it’s only when we’re truly ourselves that we can actually go into the past and heal things because we’re bringing that awareness of who we truly are. So it’s actually about lifting the veil and being present to ourselves, I would suspect.
That’s very correct. And when you talk about healing, I really connect with that because I started to realize that I, when I was becoming a teenager, I was also becoming violent to some of my younger cousins because action is a teaching. So I was transmitted this violence from one of my cousins to me without me even wanting it. And suddenly when I was frustrated I would do the same thing, I would act exactly the same way. So we can say is samsara, it’s just going in circle. And when I recognized the seed, you know, I had a particular cousin who I felt I was really mean to. And as a monk, one of our practices is to learn to heal our past and to ask for forgiveness. And so I called up my cousin, my younger cousin, one day, and I called her and and I said, hey, I’m calling to… I just wanted to take this time to say sorry, sorry for the past. And she’s like, wait, we haven’t seen each other for, like, three years. Why are you saying sorry? Because now I live in France and she’s still living in Canada. And I said, well, it’s from the time when we were much younger and I would recount some of the stories. I said, Do you remember when I behave this way? And she said, Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I had no idea why you did that. And I told her and like, I’m very sorry for those actions. Today, thanks to mindfulness, I am aware of what I have done. I would like to put a stop to it. And I would like to ask for your forgiveness. After that call and after recognizing that experience, one thing that came to me was… I was able to end that suffering because I imagine if I wasn’t able to say sorry to my cousin, then maybe one day she would also react those violence to her children or her younger cousins, and that will just keep going on and on. So taking care of the past in the present moment can be very healing. And then that allows us to create new beautiful past in this present moment.
Wow. I love that idea that being in the present moment can heal generations into the future. And actually, it comes back to what we were discussing in the last episode about the power of our actions and our thoughts that actually every thought and action, there’s no such thing as a thought, an action that is neutral. Everything has an impact. So actually, that means that every time we open our mouths, every time we have a thought, it’s either going to create something of beauty or it’s going to create something that creates hardship. It can’t be in the middle. It can’t be nothing.
So, brother, you were the close attendant of Thich Nhat Hanh for around 16, 17 years. Tell us about his practice of mindfulness, because, you know, in a sense, you know, hundreds of thousands of people benefit from his teachings. But what was it like to observe him?
To simply say it, his action is mindfulness itself. And being around him was just like being around a ball of mindfulness energy. But it comes from discipline. It comes from training and determination. So our monastery life is a discipline, is a training for us to cultivate mindfulness in our daily life. I would say one of his superpower would be to enjoy each moment and not waste a single moment. And for example, one thing that I still cannot do today and that I still aspire to be able to have that strength is even though he’s a simple monk, he would like to call himself a simple monk and a very free and lazy monk. But at the same time, looking at his legacy, he’s done so much and already looking at the collection of books that he has written is a lot. And part of my my time as his attendant is getting to witness him write new books, as well as to translate new sutras from Chinese into English, Vietnamese or from Sanskrit, etc.. And every time it came time to a meal, our task as an attendant was to prepare his meal or set up the table. And I would come up to him and I would say… I would draw my palms and we would bow. And we say, Dear Thay, it is time for lunch. We would like to invite you to lunch. And almost within a few seconds he would put his pen down or his book or whatever he’s doing, and he would just come to the meal. And it’s something so simple. But now that I’m more busy than before, whenever I hear the bell for lunch or for dinner or for breakfast, the first thing that comes up to my mind is the lines can be a little bit long. I can wait a little bit longer. And suddenly I start to see that I’m not taking care of the present moment because later on I have to rush to the meal and then I cannot enjoy that present moment. I cannot enjoy mindful eating. I cannot enjoy just standing in line, for example. So I can say that one of his capacity of being mindful is also learning to just be in the moment. And I had a moment when I was with Thay and we were walking and he stopped and he looked at me and he asked me: What gathas are you practicing when you practice walking meditation? Gathas are our meditation poems and our teacher has written a lot of them to help us focus, have attention to the steps that we take or when we turn on the water. Water flows from high mountains… So the gratitude can be born. And at that moment, I was just saying, dear Thay, I’m still just recognizing left foot, right foot, because I was still so so young at the practice and my mind was always jumping in 10000 directions. So just the fact knowing that this is a left foot making a step and this is a right foot making a step is already a lot for me. And then I’d asked Thay and I’m like, hey, how about you? And I would expect from a Zen master would say, Thay doesn’t need to practice because I’m at this level. And Thay looked at me and he said, Thay is practicing. I have arrived. I am home in the here, in the now. And I was in shock almost because I didn’t think someone at Thay’s advance in meditation was to be doing something so simple. But at that moment I realized that even as a Buddha to continue to have mindfulness, you have to cultivate it every day, every moment.
Beautiful. And brother, can you just give for people who don’t know you talk about walking meditation, what actually is walking meditation and how can you practice it? And can you do running meditation as well or is it just walking? Can you just give us just a practical sense of what you mean by that?
Yes. Walking meditation is a form of practice that allows us to connect our mind to the steps that we take in our daily life. And we have formal ways of walking. We have two styles in our practice center. One is slow walking meditation, which we do in the meditation hall, and the other is normal walking meditation outside. And there’s two benefits to both practices. The one outside it allows us to be in touch with our steps, the community that we’re walking with as well as nature. And I think in today’s day to come back to nature is really important because we’re so focused in the internet as well as many other things that are that are circulating around our life. So nature is a very essential energy for all of us. And the key of it is to bring our mind home to the present moment with our steps. And we use to breath so we would combine, let’s say, breathing in, I would take three steps as I breathe in. And you are aware as you breathe in, you can say in, in, in with the steps. And when you breathe out, you allow and you focus on the steps as you breathe out. You say out, out, out, out. So doing this and training like this, you are allowing yourself to cultivate a habit of being with your body in this moment. And then slow walking meditation, which I enjoy a lot because I procrastinate a lot. I think a lot. And my mind is a monkey. So concentration is something that I had to really develop. So slow walking meditation is one breath for one step. So as you breathe in, you just make one step and you almost want to combine that step with that outbreath. And in the practice, you have to also relax your body. So a lot of people think when you practice meditation, you have to be very stiff or you have to be very rigid. Actually, in our practice is coming back to the body is also learning to relax the body, be natural with the body. And so when you make this step with your inbreath, you can relax into that step. And as you breathe out, you take another step. And you can combine words to help your mind focus. For example, breathing in, we can say, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. I have arrived here means in the present moment. I’m home here also means to be at home in this very moment. So that is the key of the practice to come back to the step, to be fully in the present moment.
Great. Thank you. And just finally, you know, when you’re living in a monastery and I know a lot of people think it’s very calm and quiet, in fact, you’re just as busy as most people in the world, actually. But when you look out in the world and you see, you know, the rise of social media and just people being, never mind that they’re mind being in a thousand directions, they’re being literally pulled in a thousand directions, you know, with this constant being fed information, constantly on the move, constantly new experiences, constantly different ways to experience life. I mean, it’s quite overwhelming actually.
And what would be your advice to people who, you know, people want to live an active life, that they’re interested in life, that they they want to look at what’s going on. But how do you balance out the fact that there’s so much available with a need to slow down? What would your advice to people be?
Resting is very important. And finding that practice or that condition to allow yourself to rest is so important in today’s society. A lot of our suffering comes from stress. So I have found that meditation, the practice of mindfulness, allows you to rest more deeply because having the intention is one, but doing is another. So having a form of practice that allows you to reconnect to yourself inside of you, to know where you are at in this present moment, is so crucial, especially for leaders. Right? When you’re a leader, you have to be present. And so what we have discovered, to offer presence you have to learn to be there for yourself first. It’s like if you want to love someone, you have to have love for yourself first. So if you want to be fresh, if you want to give to the world, you also have to learn to be there for yourself, to give for yourself. So meditation, like we have said, it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. And when you see yourself more clearly, you can be also in touch with also all of the elements that are around you that is contributing to your being. And so you don’t get lost, actually. You can actually empower yourself much more.
Well, that’s great, because as I said, I came into this conversation feeling stressed, bit overwhelmed, bit angry, bit frustrated. And, you know, as I would say, the proof is in the pudding. And now I feel calm, relaxed, supple. So I don’t know about you listeners, but I’ve got better now. Say, thank you, brother, for the conversation.
And today in our podcast, we have a special guest, we have a first guest on our podcast. Yay! We have Sister Trai Nghiem. I allow her to introduce herself first.
Yes, let’s put her on the spot straight away. Sister, who are you?
Hi, Jo. And hi, brother Phap Huu. Thank you for having me on this podcast. My name is Sister Trai Nghiem. Trai Nghiem means adornment with purification. This is the name I received from our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. We call him Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese. So we all receive a name when we ordain and that becomes our practice for the rest of our life, basically.
And tell us, sister, where do you come from originally, and what attracted you to become a nun in this tradition?
Well, I’ve lived in many places before arriving Plum Village. I think I can say I’m Japanese, both of my parents are Japanese. I spent a lot of time also in the U.S.. And what brought me to the practice?
What was the conditions that allow you to get to know about Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh as well as the Plum Village community?
What is like a shorter version and longer version. The shortest version I can give is to say that my ancestors have brought me here.
I guess that needs a little bit more explanation. Yeah, I think I’ve always been on kind of spiritual search since my teenage years. I think many of us we start to wonder more about life and what life is about and maybe go through a difficult time as a teenager, depression. And so I’ve always been interested in spirituality, meditation and yoga practice. I think when actually both of my parents died in my 20s, so that was a big event in my life. And that’s when I really started to contemplate what it means to live and what it means to die. And I think through that, I started reading a lot of Buddhist books and I met Thich Nhat Hanh, Thay’s book. And one day I thought, oh, maybe I’d like to come and visit Plum Village. And immediately I felt at home. And after maybe two or three retreats, yeah, I felt very inspired to make this a full-time living, if I can call it a living.
And sister, you know, we’re talking about mindfulness today. So… be really interesting to see, you know, a bit about how you practice mindfulness and… But also, more importantly, what changes has it brought to your life?
Well, I think I remember there was one time I came to Plum Village and I attended a retreat as a lay person, meaning before I ordained as a nun. And I remember it was a Christmas New Year retreat. And we have this tradition here on New Year’s Eve, we write aspiration. It’s a bit like a New Year’s resolution, but we make a vow on the piece of paper and we have a walking meditation or together as a community and we burn it in a bonfire. It’s a very powerful, beautiful practice. But I remember that year somehow I had this wish suddenly that I want to be responsible for my own happiness and suffering. And then that’s something I wrote on a piece of paper, that I want to practice and I want to be responsible for my own happiness, no matter what happened in my life. And I think that’s something mindfulness can really help with, you know. Of course, you know, every day we have our ups and downs and we have small suffering, big sufferings. But when we know that we are responsible about our own attitude and how we deal with everything that we face in our life, that gives us the power, the kind of background that we know that no matter what happens, I will be OK, you know. I have my own practice to go through this. And in the end, whenever I go through the difficulty, I will come out with, like, new insight. There’s a new way of looking at life.
And sister, one of the things I love about this tradition and you just raised it was you said we all have our ups and downs. And I know a lot of people have this sort of imagination that when you become a monastic, you know, you purify yourself and everything becomes perfect. And people put themselves on a pedestal and look down at people living in the world and say, oh, poor people living… God. But actually, one of my… one of the things I love about the humility of this tradition is that, you say, we still face our ups and downs. So, you know, what’s it like living as a monastic in terms of, you know, does it suddenly make life easier that everyone gets on beautifully together or actually, you know, what actually is it like?
Well, you know, we live here in Plum Village, we have about 200 monks and nuns at the moment. We have a monastery for monks and then we have two nunneries called Lower Hamlet and New Hamlet. And I live in New Hamlet. And right now we have about 60 sisters living together. I think on brother side we have more Western European American brothers. But in New Hamlet most of the sisters come from Vietnam and from many different Asian countries. When we join the community, it’s like we bring in all of our ancestors with us, you know, all of the beauty of our culture, which makes the community very rich. But we also have all kinds of habit energies that can create suffering for ourselves and for others that we live closely with. And it’s really like living in a monastery. It’s like living in a big family or in a microcosmos as a small society. Basically, everything that happens outside the monastery, I think also happens inside the monastery. But what’s wonderful about living in a monastery is that each one of us is a practitioner and we all have different pace of practicing. So you cannot say after one year of practicing, you should be like this or after 10 years you should be at this level practice. You know, we all have different backgrounds and we all have different pace of learning and different things come up in the life. So you really can’t say. It’s not like going to school and you pass a test and you go to the next level. It’s not like that. But for sure that we are all practicing. That’s something, yeah, I can say with confidence. So, of course, every day we bump into each other with the little things because we come from different cultures. So even little things, you know, we have different ways of like even like cutting a carrot, for example, you know. Like if you have five sisters in the kitchen, they all have different ways of how carrot should be cut. You know, the kind of size, which directions. And New Hamlet is well-known for good food and sisters cook really well. But that means also that everybody has strong ideas about how food should be cooked. So there’s one place that we all feel… I think many sisters feel very passionate about cooking, but that also means that a lot of the kind of conflict can also happen around food. Yeah, so we face all kinds of like… the small arguments, the bigger arguments in our daily life. But at the same time, we all know that we are practicing. And sometimes, you know, something happens and maybe we say we’re not always 100 percent mindful. So we might say something that could irritate the other person. And then if we’re mindful, we are aware that, oh, I’ve said something unskillful and I upset the sister. So, you know, sometimes you can apologize right away and make the situation fine. But there are other times where you have a bigger conflict. And we know that each one of us, we need a bit more space and time to come back to ourselves and look into our own feelings and mental formations or just our thinking to see we know what have I done to contribute to this conflict. And then usually after a few days, you know, we just see how silly the whole situation was and we don’t even have to talk about it. Everything’s fine. But then there are other times that we need to sit down and talk about things, to undo the wrong perceptions and misunderstandings. So, yeah.
Can that sometimes sort of, you know, living in a community where there’s this constant awareness, so is that… Does that have its downsides at all? I don’t… Do you sometimes want a holiday and just go down to the beach and have an ice cream and lie in the sun?
I think we have a lot of space. So whenever we want to get away from other people, you know, we are so lucky that we’re surrounded by beautiful nature. We can take a walk on a plum orchard or in the forest. And so we can always find ourselves space. And yeah, it’s… And then we all share rooms. So it’s like, for example, in my room I stay in the room bedroom with like five other sisters. So there are six of us. It’s a little bit like living the boarding school I guess. And then… But it’s interesting thing is like when we are in harmony, no matter how many people are in the room, it never feels like crowded. But it’s… When we have something that’s, you know, that, you know, that there’s an elephant in the room… there’s something that something somebody is not happy with. And then suddenly you feel like, oh, there’s not enough space. I need to run away. I need to go find my own space. So it’s sort of interesting to see how when we feel spacious inside, like physical space outside doesn’t really matter. You know, we can be anywhere and we feel spacious and happy.
Yeah. And I just want to say that there’s a day in the week in the monastery, we call it Lazy Day is one of the most holiest day in the week is where we don’t have a practice schedule. And for each individual, we can schedule our own activity through that day. We can rest more. We can sleep in more. We can exercise more. We can study more. The only schedule is the meals. And I think that’s the day that we all cherish a lot. And we also use that in order to kind of like press the refresh button for us for the coming week.
And in a sense, I think this is one of the brilliant attributes of Thich Nhat Hanh… is that, you know, it’s not about… He hasn’t made the practice rigid, like you have to do eight hours sitting a day. But it’s relentless. I mean, he has, by the way, is… You all doing a lot, but also you create spaciousness.
But I have to say, at the same time, this lazy day, it sounds so wonderful to have this day off, but it’s actually the most advanced practice because we all have this habit energy of wanting to do many things in our community. We have many projects and we have an aspiration to do this and that to bring the Dharma out to the world. So we are constantly, you know, have a full inbox and many projects. And yeah it’s very difficult to stop ourselves and to just really enjoy the lazy day and just not to plan your day and just let the day unfold and being the present moment. So that’s something I’m really still practicing with.
And sister, one other thing. You’re an accomplished violinist, and you know, before you became a nun, you were, you know, you were recognized as such. And I’m just wondering, is there any connection from your experience between mindfulness and playing music… Just interested in. I’ve never asked you that.
Hmm. Yeah, I think it’s… Everything has to do with mindfulness. And I think not only music, but in any profession, I think, when you want to master your art, you cannot do it without the energy of mindfulness. And I think often people are doing that already without knowing the word mindfulness and concentration and insight. It’s only when you come in touch with the so-called Buddhist teaching that you are aware of, oh, it’s actually mindfulness. So looking back, I think like all of my colleagues, even though, you know, I think now the word mindfulness is very popular, but 10, 15 years ago, when I was still working as a musician, the word wasn’t that well known yet. But when they think about the way we used to work together in ensemble and orchestra, I think everybody was very mindful because if you are not in the moment, you know, in the flow, you cannot really perform in classical music. The concert lasts for one hour, two hours, and you really have to be concentrated and be in harmony with everybody on stage. So it’s very powerful.
So mindfulness is not a new invention, but it’s a way to help people to recognize an aspect of their life that can really support them.
So, sister, I also have a question. Is that after you became a nun, you know, the whole idea is like, you know, we let go of our talent, our past, and we are now a simple person that just meditates all day. And then suddenly one of the uniqueness of Plum Village is also allowing the younger generation to bring talent into the community. And so one of our our very well-known chant is Namo Avalokiteshvara. And before you came, we only did the chant with the guitar and the drum. And then suddenly we had you and brother Phap Linh, who is another musician. And then we wanted to bring more music instrument into it. And so that became such a performance in a way. But now that you… when you offer it, when you play the violin with the community chanting in front of everyone, do you see it different than before? Like your energy that you bring to it, is it different than before?
You mean before I ordained or like when I started playing 10 years ago?
Oh. Like before when you were performing.
Oh, I see. Oh, yeah. Definitely, yeah. Because when I was working as a professional musician, the most important thing is like perfection of art. And as professional, you cannot make mistakes on stage. And so that’s why you have… we already prepare ourselves well, mentally, physically before each performance, so you are in your best shape and everybody’s really focused and you know. Of course from time to time, something would go wrong and it’s OK. But we really try to do our best to achieve that kind of perfection. But… And of course, chanting Nama Avalokiteshvara it was… It’s really a great practice for me to let go of what is like good music, basically, because when I first heard brothers and sisters chant, our community, you know, we’re not musically trained. So everybody just chant wholeheartedly. And, you know, I think there are many brothers and sisters who are naturally musical. But, you know, it’s not, you know, everybody’s thing, you know. But we are not we’re not selective. We don’t just, like, pick the good singers, to, you know, offer the chant. It’s the energy we produce from our practice. So everybody goes up in front of the audience of our friends who come to the retreat and we all chant together. And another thing, so we don’t really practice. So we just go up and we offer our heart and to send the energy of compassion. So, yeah, it was very interesting for me because when they first heard, it’s like, oh my goodness, it’s like so out of tune. But then I see everybody sitting there feeling very touched by this collective energy of compassion. And, you know, many of our friends are in tears because they really feel that energy. And it’s like, wow, this is like so interesting. And in the beginning, I actually felt frustrated because I was asked to play the violin to keep the pitch more or less in tune so our brothers and sisters can tune into the violin, and also to keep the rhythm. So pitch and rhythm is like two basic elements of music. But then often I felt like, ah, like there’s no sense of pitch, there’s no sense of rhythm. It’s kind of all over the place. But somehow there’s something. And as a collective organism, we have a way of chanting and in a way rushing cause the chant it usually lasts for like 20 minutes long. And it starts out very slow and bit by bit it goes faster and faster. And at the end the finishing tempo is different from the starting tempo, which is in the, you know, like standard music where this is like it’s not good and it’s no good practice. You should keep the same tempo from beginning to the end, you know. And also the pitch, it starts at the higher level and it slowly goes lower and lower and lower. So which is also something that it’s not accepted in the professional world. But that that’s how we chant. Somehow we cultivated this habit to chant this way. So in the beginning, I felt like this is wrong. So like I want to talk to my sisters and brothers and point this thing out and try to make this better. But then this collective energy is so much stronger. So this… I realized, OK, there’s not much I can do. I just have to go with it and go with the flow.
Yeah, letting go of how it’s supposed to sound. And then once I was able to let go it just became so much more pleasant experience for me, not playing and thinking like, oh my goodness, it’s out of tune, but it’s just like OK. I just blend myself into this river of energy of our brothers and sisters chanting, you know, from their heart. And it’s really an art. And also it reflects our way of living in our community, because we’re all coming with all kinds of ideas of right and wrong and from different cultures, different backgrounds. But when we still have that mindset, the first person who suffers is ourselves. When they have the judgment, as I’m the one who’s suffering from that kind of narrow way of thinking. So it’s really a practice of letting go and just opening myself up and letting the Sangha carry me.
That’s such a wonderful example, because isn’t that true of us all, that when we let go of the way we think it ought to be or should be, we can be so much happier. And if we’re trying to impose on other people what we think is right, then we create unhappiness in ourselves and we create unhappiness in the people around us. So thank you, sister. So I want to finish off by asking you both, because this whole session is around the art of mindfulness, the concentration and mindfulness, and then leading to an insight. And so I want to ask you first, brother, of a recent insight you’ve had of something in sort of recent months that would be… I know there’s a term in Plum Village called the fruit of our practice, which is saying that actually as a result of our practice, that it does bear fruit, that something does come from that, that we can enjoy and makes our lives better. So is there anything that’s happened to you that you can think of off the top of your head or… Actually not off the top of your head, but deep in your heart that maybe has come up in the last few months.
Wow, that’s a really good question, Jo. This is a whole meditation in itself.
You could throw it back at me. I’ll have to think about it too.
Yeah, yeah. One thing that I’ve been working on for myself is acceptance. And I think this is very in line with what Sister Trai Nghiem shared about learning to let go. And when I first started to practice as a monk, like I have a very perfectionist mind orientated. I want to be perfect in everything. And I still remember as a novice when I was like, today I’m going to be super mindful and by, you know, three minute in a day, I find myself losing it. I’m like, God, oh, my God, I’ve got to start again. And that… And I will repeat that again and again. And then slowly I start to realize that it’s not about being perfect, but it’s about just giving it your best, being aware of it. Because the moment you’re aware that you are not mindful, you become mindful. And so it’s just to allow yourself to embrace that. And that has allowed me now to embrace and to accept where I am in this community, where I need to be. And that allowed me also to further deepen my aspiration.
Thank you. Sister, you’ve obviously already shared, but is anything even even very small that has just come to you recently as a sort of.. Oh, right, I get it moment.
Recently? Um, I think, um, we’ve been in this pandemic. Our monastery has been closed for over a year now and we’ve been offering many online retreats. But before we closed the monastery, we used to be so busy receiving guests, retreat participants, throughout the year. Sometimes we had 1000 friends practicing with us, like in a summer retreat. And when we are not hosting retreats, we were often on tour, teaching tours, to different countries. So we have a very active lifestyle. And I’m somebody who also likes to stay active and who likes to go out and be involved in different things. But since we’ve closed our monastery door for this past year, we had more time to be with our own sisters, with our own monastic siblings. And I’m realizing that this is an area that I really want to do better and it’s something I want to invest in more. Like brother Phap Huu, he’s so much older than me in the dharma age, dharma age meaning how long we’ve been ordained. But I’ve been ordained for about eleven years now. So I’m about kind of like mid age. I have like half of my sisters are older than me and half of my sisters are younger than me. And I think it’s really important to be present for each other, for the sisters that I live with, because I realize that often sisters say like, oh, sister Trai Nghiem is so busy, you know, don’t bother her. And I have many younger sisters. They said they’ve been wanting to talk to me and asked me to teach them something, but they often hesitated because they felt like I always look so busy and they don’t want to bother me. But actually, whenever they ask me, I’m so happy and I like to spend time with them. So that’s something I want to cultivate my practice so that I don’t look like a busy nun all the time and with some work, but just to be there for my sisters, especially my younger sisters. And yeah, that’s something I never thought I would be feeling like ten years ago when I ordained. Yeah, that’s the quality I want to develop, because even before I ordained, I was the only child. I didn’t have many siblings. So in a way, this is like a brand new practice for me to have to care for my younger siblings. So this is, yeah, it’s… This past year has been already, uh, you know, in a way a kind of blessing. And I think many friends out there also experienced the same thing. We have more time to spend with our own family members because the schools are closed. You cannot go to work. You have to work from home. And I think in our modern day world, we don’t spend enough time with each other. So suddenly when we have time to spend with each other, we don’t know how. So we have to relearn almost, you know, so it’s the same thing for me. And yeah, I’m finding ways to be with my sisters and also with my brothers and with myself also.
And how about you, Jo?
Oh, I knew that was coming.
Well I think my biggest insult… Insight… Insult I was about to say.
But the power of words.
It was just over a year ago when I was… So I was working in New York and I was on the senior leadership team of the Huff Post, Huffington Post, and always sort of super busy and living in the center of a very busy city. But actually, what I was realizing in my work, I was working… I was trying to change the world at scale, in a sense. I was writing and commissioning and editing stories that I hoped would help people to see the world with fresh eyes. But I realized in that I had lost my own connection to the intimacy of this work. So while I was… It was almost like a one way street. I kept on giving, but I wasn’t really getting very much back. And I realized that I wanted to come back to a feeling of intimacy, of deep connection with myself, so that when whatever I did in my life, that it would come from the very heart of me rather than just as a something from the outside of me. And that sort of coincided with this wish, which was very much inspired by my wife to come and live next to Plum Village. And I think behind that was just this deep wish to be, to slow down, to be part of the community, part of a community. To feel that sort of deep sense of belonging, of shared understanding, of a wish to… that I didn’t have to do things on my own. I realized that I was in a lot of… I spoke at a lot of conferences and shared a lot of things where I was often the only person in the room trying to help people to see the power of these practices. So it was lovely just to be part of the practice. And then coming here, what I realized was actually I still wanted to have an impact in the world. I didn’t want to disappear. And one of the wonderful things about Plum Village is you’re not sitting as a here’s a monastery in an insular way. You’re creating this practice center and this practice in order to help the world. And so it made me realize that actually I still want to create at scale. I still want to have an impact at scale. But I wanted to do it from a place of intimacy, which means that I’m now working with with leaders in the climate movement and sustainability movement and international development movement in order to help people who are creating at scale to actually come home to themselves. So that when people that… There’s so many people who are trying to change the world and are burning out and they don’t really realize that, what we know is that you can only change the world if you change yourself. So the recognition for me is to come back to myself in order to help other people to come back to myself, which I think is the mindfulness practice. I come back to myself, I steady myself, I come back to the center. I’m aware, I’m present. And what I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh is I’m able more to embody the practice. So I don’t have to say much because hopefully I represented it in who I am. And that means that when I reach out and support other people, that I can model that and so that they themselves can come back to themselves and therefore have even more impact in the world. So the great insight was that to create change in our world, we really have to come back to ourselves. And when we come back to ourselves, wow, we can really change the world.
Beautiful. Well, thank you, everyone, for joining us and listening to our podcast today. And this is the segment where we will invite all of you to practice a little meditation with us. So whether you are sitting on a bus, sitting on a sofa, in a car or wherever you are… even if you’re walking. If you can just allow yourself to be still, whether you stop yourself, stand still or find a place to sit and just to connect to your breath. And today, Sister Trai Nghiem will guide us in a short meditation.
OK, so if you’re sitting, you can bring your hands and place them on your belly and you can also close your eyes as long as you’re not driving. If you’re driving, please do not close your eyes. Well, hopefully you can pull to the side of the road and enjoy five minutes of practice. So with our hands on our belly, you can breathe in. Feeling the belly rising. Breathing out, you can feel your belly falling. In, rising. Out, falling. You can continue to breathe. And feel your belly becoming softer and softer with each breath. And with next inbreath, we can bring our attention to our two shoulders. Breathing out, we can relax our shoulders. We’ve been carrying many things on our shoulders. Responsibilities, worries, future plans. And with an outbreath we can let them all go. So our shoulders feel nice and light. Now, with the next inbreath, we bring our attention to our two arms. Breathing out, relax our two arms. All the way from our shoulders, our elbows, forearms, our two hands, and our fingers. Continue to feel our belly rising and falling. Breathing in, now we bring our attention to our two legs. Breathing out, I send the energy of gratitude to my two legs. Thanks to my two legs I can walk, I can run, I can dance, I can go to anywhere I want. I relax my thighs. Relax my knees. Relax my calves. Relax my ankles. And relax my toes. Often when we’re feeling tense or stressed, our toes are very tense. So whenever we notice discomfort in our body, we can bring our attention to our toes. We can wiggle our toes, relax them, and smile to our toes. Breathing in, I enjoy my inbreath. Breathing out, I enjoy my outbreath. Breathing in, I feel grateful to be alive right now, in this moment. Breathing out, I sent my energy of gratitude to all beings.
Thank you, sister and dear listeners, for joining us for this episode of The Way Out Is In. And you can catch us and all our episodes on Spotify, on Apple podcast, on all other platforms that carry podcasts and also on the Plum Village App. My own personal gratitude to the Plum Village tradition and to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and for the support given to us by the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation. We’ll meet again soon.
The way out is in.